In the SEO world where keywords play an important role, not being able to identify ‘not provided’ keywords in Google Analytics (the search terms that brought visitors to a site) is comparable to sailing through heavy fog. The imposed blindness weakens our performance and productivity. In the absence of actionable data, what can we do to gain some insight on what works? There are a handful of methods that help us get the information we need.
What are ‘Not Set’ Keywords in Google Analytics
Back in 2011, Google implemented a way to hide search terms issued from a secure connection linked to a Google account (Gmail, YouTube, Analytics, and a few more) in its Analytics reports. The move was officially motivated by privacy concerns: any query keyed in using the secure protocol “https://” would not reveal the keywords in Google Analytics Reports. In other words, it became impossible to identify true organic traffic to a website. (Since then, some browsers have defaulted to this standard).
The exception to the rule is that keywords associated with paid Google ads are exempt from the lockdown.
Between a secure search connection and a website Google filters the search terms: PPC associated keywords pass through and show up in your data; independent search terms do not.
As a result, you are getting traffic on your pages (and possibly conversions and sales), but you don’t know what visitors searched for to land there, making it difficult to know your audience and implement action plans and targeting campaigns or improve your SEO.
Methods to Identify ‘Not Provided’ Keywords in Google Analytics
Create a Custom Report for Landing Pages
Creating a report that filters ‘not provided’ keywords per URL can help weed through the unknown, at least for new visits.
• From a profile in Google Analytics account, select Filters
• Select ‘+ New Filter’
• Add (advanced) Filter to Profile
The output will list all pages that were visited while the search terms are unavailable.
If you are confident the pages carry relevant keywords, you will have a better idea of their performance based on number of visits.
If you are running PPC campaign, you can correlate the ranking with ‘not provided’ keyword analyze the trends.
Use Google Webmaster Tools Reports
Another way to identify ‘not provided’ keywords is to use the queries report from Webmaster Tools. It displays the Google search queries that generated the most impressions for your URLs. All you need is to set up Webmaster Tools data sharing.
Analyze the traffic sources to understand where the searches are coming from. The queries report allows you to identify the most popular keywords and provide new keywords to consider. With this data, you can isolate the pages that have a good position but low click-through, and focus on improving content.
The inconvenient of this method is it works for one website at a time. If you manage several sites, you have to manually change the association between Webmaster and Google Analytics each time.
Use Adwords reports to identify ‘not provided’ keywords
Paid search is not subject to the privacy filter, so this is a good place to go fish.
The Adwords keyword report gives the whole data of traffic sources in “Matched Search Queries”.
If Adwords is part of your campaigns, comparing page data between paid and organic searches is useful.
Where it gets interesting is to analyze your competitors’ performance in the Google Adwords Auction Insights Report.
This reveals great information on keywords that hit, along with a glimpse of your competition’s strategies: if a keyword consistently makes it to the top, it could mean they are focusing on it…for a (good) reason.
When Google pulled the plug and created the ‘not provided’ keywords creature, they sparked a fierce controversy. Solutions to identify organic search or circumvent the absence of data exist but are far from providing satisfactory results (not to mention the amount of work it represents to get information that was available before). Third party developers are working around the clock to bring back sanity to the SEO world.